There’s no doubt about where our gaze is directed here. A dramatic shaft of sunlight cuts through the gloom to highlight the empty eye sockets and gap-toothed grin of a skull which lolls to one side on the edge of the table. We are staring death in the face, while the snuffed-out lamp and ticking watch remind us that our time too will come.
This genre of painting is known as a vanitas still life. The word refers to a passage in the Old Testament which contrasts the transience of worldly life with the everlasting nature of faith: ‘All is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?’
The implication is that human endeavours, pleasures and possession – symbolised by the books, the musical instruments and the expensive Japanese sword – are ephemeral and futile.
There’s no doubt about where our gaze is directed here. A dramatic shaft of sunlight cuts through the gloom to highlight the empty eye sockets and gap-toothed grin of a skull which lolls to one side on the edge of the table. We are staring death in the face. But what should we make of the strange collection of other objects which form the rest of this dramatic still life ?
It’s always difficult to be sure why the elements depicted in a painting were chosen. We do know that still-life paintings were valued as a demonstration of the artist’s skill at depicting different materials. The textures and shadows of rumpled cloth, or the lustre of and distorted reflections in metal, glass, polished wood and shells provided an excellent opportunity for virtuoso painting which was much admired at the time. Steenwyck seems to have included extra details to increase the challenge, draping a frayed rope through the handles of the earthenware flask, crumpling the pages of one of the books and arranging several pieces so that they protrude forwards over the edge of the table.
Rare and valuable collectors’ items were commonly included in such pictures, apparently for curiosity value or to suggest wealth and plenty. Here, for example, the sword in its ornate lacquer sheath is an expensive import from Japan. And the exotic sea shell must have come from a tropical beach which few people in seventeenth-century Holland would ever see but which had great resonance for their nation: Holland derived much of its wealth from trading with the Dutch East Indies and the Far East.
There are several other examples of Dutch still-life pictures in the National Gallery’s collection, including Still Life with a Pewter Flagon and Two Ming Bowls and Still Life with the Drinking-horn of the St Sebastian Archers’ Guild, Lobster and Glasses. But the presence of the skull here is a clear indication that this picture is to be seen as a particular type of still life known as a vanitas. The word refers to a passage in the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament: ‘All is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?’ It’s an attempt to contrast the transience of worldly life, and the futility of human endeavour and pleasure, with the everlasting nature of faith.
Interpreted in this light, the books can be seen as a reference to learning and intellectual endeavour. The musical instruments – there is a recorder inscribed with a capital A, an upturned lute and a shawm (a sort of oboe) – and the flask are likely to have been seen as references to the ephemeral pleasures of music and wine. The rare and expensive sword might be seen as signifying two other ephemera, luxury and power, while the empty shell is both an exotic collector’s piece and, like the skull, a reminder of a life lost. We are also reminded that time is running out for the rest of us. A thin smudge of smoke trailing from the lamp just behind the skull suggests that it has just burnt out, or been extinguished. To the left, a pocket watch ticks relentlessly. The contrast between the two books – one apparently new and unread, the other well-thumbed – also hints at the ageing process.
X-ray images of the painting show that Steenwyck made a significant change to the composition. The flagon to the right was painted over the bust of a man wearing a wreath on his head – probably a Roman emperor, a symbol of earthly power. We will almost certainly never know why Steenwyck or his patron decided on the substitution; perhaps the white or stone colour of the bust drew attention away from the skull. Instead, the curving profile of the flask reinforces that of the lute and the dome of the cranium.
The unbalanced nature of the composition also has significance. All these treasures are loaded on the table to the lower side of a diagonal which runs right across the painting. It is a line which is echoed by the angle of the recorder and especially of the Japanese sword. The upper side of the diagonal is essentially blank space, cut through only by the shaft of light which follows the opposite diagonal. The contrast between material riches and emptiness couldn’t be clearer.
Today, it’s quite hard to imagine why anyone would want a permanent reminder of the vanity of wealth and of their own mortality hung on their living room wall. But the tension between material prosperity and Christian piety – both of which were valued and respected in seventeenth-century Holland – was considered something to be remembered and reflected on, rather than avoided. Indeed, in the seventeenth century, such overt musing was not restricted to the visual arts. Forty years before this painting was made, Shakespeare’s Hamlet brooded on the subject with bitter negativity when confronted with the skull of Yorick the jester, although we can’t be sure that the implications were always perceived quite so negatively.
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